The front door of the center was guarded by an 11-year-old named Luke. He sat cross legged on a chair licking a heaping spoonful of vanilla pudding—one of his favorite treats to eat every day after school. This mop headed boy smiled at every one who came into the center.
Luke was ushered past the offices and back into the main room. It was full of laughter, yelling and children of all ages. Trampolines, TVs and every kind of toy a kid’s paradise created.
JBU Freshman Kat Hollingsworth sat on the carpet passing toy cars back and forth with 7-year-old Carlos. Each time the tow truck reached his hands he giggled hysterically.
Luke has Down’s syndrome and Carlos has autism. They are two of the many children being helped by the Ability Tree, a center in downtown Siloam Springs dedicated to helping families with special needs children.
“I like working with special needs kids,” said Hollingsworth. “They are always so happy.” Carlos ran over and planted a kiss on her cheek, though they have only known each other for one afternoon.
It’s her first day volunteering at Ability Tree during its first week of after school programs. Hollingsworth is one of 38 University students volunteering at Ability Tree.
The ministry was started by Joe Butler. Shortly after turning two, Joe’s son Micah seemed to be developing slowly. He was having trouble sleeping, eating and walking. After he had a seizure, Micah was diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy.
Butler and his wife Jen found that being parents of a special needs child had its own unique challenges. He explained that many parents of special needs children socialize little, have high medical costs and have to focus much of their time on their special needs child rather than the siblings. Few churches have staff trained to care for special needs children or programs for them and there is no other ministry in Siloam Springs designed for children with Down’s syndrome, autism or other disabilities.
With no faith-based special needs care in the area, the Butlers decided it was their life’s calling to provide it. Ability Tree is their non-denominational, non-profit response.
It offers arts and crafts, reading therapy, sensory rooms, training and more. This is all part of their REST philosophy. It stands for recreation, education, support and training. The Butlers know first-hand how parenting children with special needs can be challenging and they hope to provide these families with rest.
The facility was opened last summer and just began an after-school program. Parents can drop off their special needs children and their siblings Monday through Thursday after school. There they are supervised by experts and volunteers. There are games, songs and sometimes special guests like local firemen or Gentry Safari.
While it may seem like there are plenty of volunteers, Butler explained that special needs children often need a one-to-one ration of people supervising, and on one of their busier nights this could mean fifteen or more volunteers. He encouraged more JBU students to get involved by filling out an application online.
Butler also encouraged families with special needs children to take advantage of this free service and to take a break from their busy lives. The after school program is Monday to Thursday from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
To contact the center call 479-373-6003, go to abilitytree.org or visit its facility at 300 East Main Street in downtown Siloam.